Two clothing donation boxes have been placed just blocks from the Salvation Army's thrift store on Dorchester Road in North Charleston, and a pastor there, Tom Richmond, is starting to worry.
The boxes are popping up in parking lots throughout the Charleston area. And they're not all nonprofit donation outlets.
Many of the boxes are owned and operated by for-profit clothing recycling companies that sell what they collect to brokers that, in turn, sell it in developing countries. Some of the companies forge relationships with nonprofit groups, to which they regularly donate from the proceeds of their sales. And they display the names and logos of those groups on their boxes.
While Richmond and other nonprofit leaders are concerned about the impact the boxes will have on donations, the private recyclers are poised to fight for their piece of the used-clothing pie. And an industry group is pushing the recyclers to police themselves, and reign in rogue elements of the industry, to avoid what it thinks is excessive regulation proposed in other parts of the country.
Local charities unite
Richmond said leaders from local nonprofit groups that collect clothing donations got together several months ago when they noticed the number of boxes was growing dramatically. They decided not to attempt any action to limit the for-profit companies. Instead they agreed to encourage local residents to check out organizations to which they donate, and to remind them of the benefits of donating to local agencies that use the donations to serve local communities.
“I'm seeing the boxes get closer and closer to my location,” Richmond said. And he wants people to know that 91 cents of every dollar the Salvation Army takes in stays in the local area.
Another advantage for people donating to nonprofit groups is that they can get a receipt for their donations and use them as tax deductions.
That's not the case for the Atlanta-based New Hope Recycling, which has placed a box in the parking lot of the Food Lion at the corner of Dorchester Road and Leeds Avenue, just a few blocks from the Salvation Army's thrift store.
New Hope's Stefan Sampaio makes very clear that his company is in business to make a profit. “We're not a charity. We're a recycling company,” he said.
The other box that concerns Richmond sits nearby in front of Cycle Gear on Dorchester Road. It's owned by a Conway company called Carolina Green. Messages for that company weren't returned Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.
That box bears the logo for the Charleston Autism Academy in Wando. Mark Littleton, the group's business manager, said the academy, which serves about 14 children with autism, receives $250 to $400 per month from Carolina Green.
Sampaio said the boxes represent a small portion of his company's business. The larger part comes from purchasing clothing that couldn't be resold from Goodwill and other charitable organizations.
Erin Aylor, spokeswoman for Goodwill Industries of Lower South Carolina, said her group sells items to recyclers that are stained, torn or simply can't be sold. But the money it brings in from such sales stays in the community.
She said she thinks the growing number of boxes in parking lots have reduced the amount donated to Goodwill, but she can't quantify how much the group might have lost.
West Ashley resident Samantha Bennett said she has dropped off clothing donations in boxes in parking lots several times in the past few months, and she assumed the donations were going to local charities.
In the Louisiana town where she lived before moving to Charleston six months ago, several local groups had drop boxes in parking lots. She assumed it was the same here. “That really changes my view,” she said. “I like donating to local groups.”
Audrey Traff, general manager of Mid-Atlantic Clothing Recycling, which has about 20 boxes in the Charleston area, said there are unethical clothing-recycling companies out there. But she thinks her group represents the best of the industry.
It's a for-profit company that offers a service by keeping clothing out of landfills, she said. And the company has an arrangement with the drug-abuse-prevention nonprofit group D.A.R.E. The company displays on its boxes information about D.A.R.E., to which it pays $350,000 annually in royalties, she said.
It also makes clear on all of its boxes that Mid-Atlantic is a for-profit company and offers contact information. And it signs leases with owners of the parking lots and other properties on which it places boxes, Traff said.
There are a lot of companies right now competing in the used clothing business, she said. And some of them simply drop boxes in parking lots without getting permission from anyone. Someone once even obtained a key to some of Mid-Atlantic's boxes and stole the donations, she said.
Jackie King, executive director of Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, said her group has created a code of conduct for businesses in the clothing-recycling industry. That's important, she said, because some nonprofit groups have tried to push for laws that ban for-profit clothing recycling. Goodwill Industries in California has pushed for a state-level ban, she said.
“Some companies are in this for a fast buck,” she said. But many, like Mid-Atlantic, try to run ethical businesses that include being transparent and appropriately maintaining collection boxes.
The association wants to make sure local and state governments apply only reasonable regulations to the industry. “Rogue players” get in the way of that, she said. “And we don't want to be banned.”
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.